By Julia Murray, NIAC
Washington, DC - It is common for politicians and the media to concentrate on the threat that Iran poses to the rest of the world. However, little in-depth thought tends to be given to the state's internal political situation. This was not the case last Thursday when experts on Iran met to talk about electoral trends in Iran and their impact on policy.
Dr Ali Ansari, Professor of History and Director of the Institute for Iranian Studies, University of St. Andrews, and Dr Suzanne Maloney, Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, gave short lectures followed by questions from the audience. The event was organized by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Middle East Program and co-sponsored by the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.
Ansari addressed various electoral trends in Iran including the rise of confrontational politics and a de-politicization of the public. He emphasized the importance of nationalism and said that it is "playing a much stronger role in how the country is operating." He stated that - together with Ahmadinejad's "eclectic" religious views (which, he noted, are not representative of the public) - nationalism characterizes internal Iranian politics and is used "in a vulgar fashion" to strengthen the President's rule.
When looking at Iran in relation to the rest of the world, Ansari argued that the state has a modern Imperialist mentality. He said this plays into backward electoral trends and recommended that a confrontation between the US and Iran should be avoided. Any conflict would be used by Ahmadinejad to his advantage, serving to detract from his failings and allowing him to turn his focus onto the international sphere.
Suzanne Maloney advised that we should not "have too high an expectation" of the Iranian Parliament opposing Ahmadinejad, especially in the up-coming 2009 election. However, she noted that there is "still a commitment among Iranians...to participate," even if their preferred candidates are barred. This offered hope for the future and supported Ansari's comment that the "architecture of democracy is there."
Maloney looked at the position of Iran in the world today and said in the West there is "often an expectation that this regime will fade from history." She argued this would not happen and policy makers must realize that the "Islamic Republic as a set of institutions is going to survive."
Regarding the nuclear situation, Maloney believed that "Iranians want to keep the door open" for diplomacy with the West. She said that the Iranian government is waiting until the next US administration before conducting serious negotiations.
Ansari highlighted that Iran's nuclear program has become a matter of nationalistic pride. This makes it less likely that the government will give into Western calls for them to stop. It also raises the question about whether the nuclear program would continue even under a democratic government. He noted that nationalism prohibits discussion about enrichment within Iran because people who stray from the status quo are branded traitorous.
Both speakers agreed that the only way to make Iran suspend its nuclear program would be to impose excessive sanctions on the country. However, Maloney said this should not be a serious policy response from any new US administration: military force would be necessary to enforce sanctions strong enough to bring about the suspension of enrichment activity. This would be a "recipe for the sort of escalation that everybody...is keen to avoid," said Maloney.
This comes at a time when the US government is seeking to strengthen current sanctions in place on Iran; a new bill, the "Iran Sanctions Act of 2008," passed the Senate Finance Committee last Wednesday. If passed through Congress, it will prohibit all imports from Iran, including the limited number of goods that are currently allowed (carpets, caviar and dried fruit). It will also require the President to freeze the US assets of individuals linked to the Iranian government.
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